The example of one major public university: The Ohio State University
Older white man

University presidents, chancellors, and vice-chancellors come and go with unusual frequency today. The average tenure has fallen from 8 to 6 years. News of firings and resignations, and less often hirings fill the front pages of national and higher education dailies. At the same time, major universities seem to learn nothing from their experiences.

Although final decisions rest with Boards of Trustees or Governors—in ageless academic rhetoric, and in the case of public universities in some states final approval by elected state governors, even the pretense of a full, inclusive, clear procedural, and all major interest groups participating search is now rare. Ohio State and Youngstown State exemplify the trends toward minimal input, scant participation, and increasingly unqualified selections.

With the additional layer in recent years of highly paid national executive search firms, most of which do not specialize in academics but are contracted regardless, searches, contradictorily, take longer and are much more expensive. Expenditures of hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars are common. The traditional role of both present administrators and faculty nominations to search committees is meaningless. Even the symbolic “show and tell” of faculty, student, and community forums is a slim shadow of days past.

Even more contradictory, and inexplicable, as critical issues such as admissions and  diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) policies,  commercialization of sports, campus safety and student well-being, and tuitions and budget decisions became ever more urgent, periods of vacancy—that is, without an acting or interim CEO—become more common.

The causes are clear: those persons appointed—in traditional terms entrusted to govern universities--lack interest in and knowledge of both the foundations of higher education and the strengths, limits, and needs of their own institutions. University communities have no role in the political economics of selection of external boards, their chairs, and rotations. They are political—separate and unequal, and anti-intellectual and educational.

Even the long-standing pretense of on-campus administrative, faculty, staff, and student, and community voices has vanished. Power over university fundamentals is ever more distant and ignorant of missions, functions, and needs. In “red states,” legislatures and governments rush to interfere ignorantly and illegitimately in free speech, course offerings and content, and even faculty reviews. Their lack of expertise gives them no pause. Power and control are the names of their games.

I explore this in the case of my own university, The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, over the course of its past five presidents during the last two decades. OSU is a well-known 150-year-old land grant public university, among the largest in the US. It is best known for its football teams. I discuss connections and disconnections, and seek to learn lessons.

When I joined the OSU faculty in 2004 as Professor of English and History and Inaugural Ohio Eminent Professor of Literacy Studies, Karen Holbrook, OSU’s 13th but first female president, was in the 3rd of her 5-year term (2002-2007). Throughout her administrative career, she was almost always the first woman to hold the office from associate dean upward.

Holbrook was an active, interested campus president. She was genuinely engaging both professionally and personally. Far more than any other president I have observed since I began college in 1967, she was present and interested in campus life/lives.

 Acquainted with her through my membership on the President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee, she and I would meet on campus sidewalks on our way to meetings and especially Distinguished Scholar lectures which she frequently attended. We chatted about common interests, often sitting together during presentations, talking softly and nodding at speakers and each other.

None of that mattered for the continuation of her position. Despite its being the early 21st century, her appointment met with sexist prejudice and opposition. Nonrenewal of her five-year contract was never in doubt. In part, this was due to her public criticism and beginning efforts to reform the sometimes-violent student culture, especially on football weekends. That was not a path to continuing tenure among the Buckeye alumni and Trustees.

In the usual way, the Dean of the College of Business served as interim president until Holbrook’s successor took office.

The search for the next president continues to astonish but not surprise. Before a regular set of search procedures began to function, the wealthiest and most powerful trustee, major donor and  commercial billionaire, Leslie Wexner, decided to fly in his private jet with one other trustee to appear unannounced at the back door of the Vanderbilt University’s president’s residence in Nashville, Tennessee.

A close personal friend of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Wexner and his fellow trustee, his wife Abigal funded a named center for the arts, with no collection of its own, and later promised $100 million (only 70% given so far) for naming rights to the medical center. In retirement, he remains a powerful presence on the Board and especially in directing the medical center’s narrowing path toward a “cash cow.”

Wexner and his colleague invited E. Gordon Gee to make his second coming at OSU where he had served from 1990-1997. Now ending his career with his disastrous, university slashing second tenure as president of West Virginia University, Gee has held more presidencies than another American administrator. In a regular pattern, he left Brown for Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt for OSU, and OSU for WVU just as his presidency was severely threatened for financial or personal misconduct.

Gee, whom I also knew personally, is a unique figure in recent higher education, almost a caricature. Not a scholar, administrative planner, or campus leader, he was a popular public performer. Beloved by students with whom he posed for photos and displayed selections from his collection of 100s of bowties, and who he visited in fraternities (but not sororities), he is a teetotalling Mormon. When students toasted him with beer cans, he responded with soda or water. In my 74 years, I have never seen a university leader work a crowd as well as Gee did. 

The ultimate empty sloganeer, if I mentioned a new book on higher education to him, he would immediately order it and walk to my office to show me. There is no evidence that he read any of them.

He also invited faculty working groups—on curriculum reform, for example—to meet in his palatial office and provided us with lunch, chatting supportively. Never once did he support us outside his office. Typically, he opposed faculty-voiced efforts. During both his terms, his support from the faculty wore thin for multiple reasons ranging from endless empty rhetoric and  broken promises to anti-academic cost-cutting. Of course, that counted little among alumni and Trustees. He accomplished almost nothing concrete.

In the end, Gee’s lack of self-control did him in after a series of anti-Catholic, sexist, and racist public comments. That was too much for all constituencies. But it did not stop West Virginia from quickly rehiring him.

Shortly after he departed OSU, I discovered the website administered by his personal business and promotional agents. It presented a series of completely false claims about his achievements at OSU. I publicly exposed them in a widely read OpEd: “An Education in Sloganeering,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2015. (See also for Gee and others, Graff, “The Banality of University Slogans: Whether it’s ad campaigns for football season, gauzy reports from the provost, or rhetoric from the school’s president, higher education abounds with empty rhetoric,” Washington Monthly, Jan. 10, 2022; “Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes,” Times Higher Education, Jan. 17, 2022; “Sloganeering and the Limits of Leadership,” Academe Blog, Jan. 19, 2022)

By 2013, Ohio State’s lack of a Black leader was as noteworthy as the absence of a woman president had been after 2000. The results of an apparently normal search not surprisingly ended with the appointment of Michael V. Drake, M.D., former medical university administrator, and then president of the University of California at Irvine. He  joined OSU in January 2013.

Across my long university career, Drake was the least knowledgeable, interested, active, and engaged president I observed. After he was in office one month, I had to walk him back to his office after a luncheon meeting in the building next door, less than 25 feet away. In 7 years, he never learned his way around the large, disconnected  university.

As the first Black president, he promoted expansion of minorities in all dimensions. This took place almost exclusively in the form  of slogans. In fact, the percentage of Black students fell. I am not exaggerating or joking when I note that his signature achievements centered on cost-cutting by purchasing toilet paper in bulk and commanding double-sided color printing. Compared to his predecessors, Drake displayed little interest in students and faculty; he was minimally involved with the community including Black Columbus.

Ending his unproductive tenure after 7 years in 2020, having announced his retirement, we learned that he negotiated his next position as president of the University of California System at the same time that he negotiated his OSU retirement bonus. That is the modern American university presidency. He is now struggling with multiple challenges across the UC system.

By 2020, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Ohio State would hire an engineer given its now dominating College of Engineering and STEM more generally—the apple in the eye of the Board of Trustees, and state and local developmental demands. And a second woman president.

A national search conducted through an executive but not higher education-focused search firm led the BOT to Kristina Johnson, chancellor of the State University of New York higher education system. Johnson had never led an individual university campus large or small. In addition, she had served in that position no more than two to three years and before that in the Johns Hopkins University Provost’s Office less than two years. In sum, Johnson had little relevant university administrative experience and none at the individual campus level. That contributed to her rapid failure.

Uninterested in that, the Board’s attention was captured by Johnson’s achievement in electrical imaging systems/optoelectronic processing, her stint as a high-tech business executive, and status as an engineer—and as a woman. That trumped all other relevant campus leadership criteria and preparation for the presidency of a very large, diverse public university.

Johnson is lesbian, married to another woman. Seldom discussed, this led to immediate opposition to her selection and presence on and off campus. That is one component in her serving the shortest term in Ohio State history. This paralleled the assault on affirmative action and Diversity-Equity-Inclusion on all levels. (At OSU, DI, not DEI.)

In the fall of 2022, the BOT ordered Johnson to resign at the end of the academic year after holding office for only two years. Opinions about her service and the grounds for her removal conflict. Regardless, she made no lasting contributions, had no relationships with faculty or students, and offended many, including senior vice presidents who have the ears of the BOT and the most powerful Trustee, Wexner. Despite rumor and media misrepresentations to the contrary, there was no single cause for ending the shortest presidency in OSU history. (See Graff, “The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 7, 2023; “The Ohio State University: Not ‘a failed presidency,’ by itself, but a failing university, Part  Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan.  11, 2023; “Kristina Johnson breaks her two-and-a-half months of silence and begins an anti-factual, myth-making campaign for rehabilitation,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Feb. 22, 2023)

Johnson’s brief tenure ended on May 7, 2023, with her third commencement. Alarmingly and revealingly, the Trustees saw no reason to appoint an acting president for a university of 90,000 students, staff, and faculty, with multiple pressing local, state, and national higher educational issues including budgets, affirmative action Supreme Court decisions, and state senate power plays. This is highly unusual but revealing about  the BOT’s ever-increasing distance from campus lives and needs.

They did set up a multi-layer but completely fictional search structure. The BOT itself comprised the actual search committee led by a subgroup, headed by its chair. They created two  so-called advisory committees, one entirely of Trustees, the other of so-called “faculty,” but in fact almost entirely administrators. The entire faculty was spammed not with requests for nominations but for suggestions for “creating a profile” of hypothetical desired characteristics. Two open meetings with two Trustees each attracted a handful of faculty--for obvious reasons.

In late August 2023, quite suddenly, the chair of the BOT called a live-streamed press conference. He announced their choice, followed by a mock vote for the cameras and introduction of the president to be. With nothing resembling an actual search, consideration of finalists, campus appearances, and no input other than search firm which cost OSU hundreds of thousands of dollars, they announced that Ted “Top Gun” and “Slapshot” Carter would take office on Jan. 1, 2023, and that a newly appointed Vice President with a mixed history and little university-wide experience would now serve as interim for four months.

Known either or both for his training and experience as naval officer experienced in shooting enemies from an airplane and for his amateur hockey days, Carter is by far the least qualified CEO of a major U.S. university in the last century. He only holds a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy. No terminal Ph.D., M.D., or law degree. No academic teaching experience. No publications.

Like his predecessor from whose selection, the BOT learned nothing, Carter has never led a university campus. He was CEO briefly for the Naval War College, then the 1200-student future military non-academic Naval Academy. He was then in only his 3rd year as head of the University of Nebraska state system. Its three campuses plus medical center are smaller than OSU’s main and branch campuses. Top Gun mainly cut budgets in Nebraska and promulgated slogans without plans or funding for student cost reduction. He was not part of an academic campus community. His public comments since moving to Columbus show no familiarity with academics, students, faculty, or the specific needs of either OSU or contemporary universities more generally. No, leading a huge, disorganized, uneven public university bears no resemblance to overseeing the reconstruction of a nuclear aircraft carrier, his favorite example of “relevant experience.”

Top Gun, to be sure, is a White, long married, heterosexual male with adult children. He is a real life “good soldier,” hired to follow the direct and the unwritten orders of the BOT, the governor, and the right-wing state legislature. With that so clear, there is nothing more to say.

The BOT meets the wishes of Ohio State Senator Jerry Cirino for the effective end of public higher education in Ohio. Therefore, it really does not matter that Carter played hockey rather than football. Preparation and experience are irrelevant in the 3rd decade of the 21st century.  Of course, his compensation greatly exceeds his female predecessor (although it pales beside the football coach’s) and is less than the just-hired new athletic director who left his previous positions with scandals. (See Graff, “Sen. Cirino versus students’ right to learn,” Letter to the Editor, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Aug. 24, 2024; “The Ohio State University Fumbles Again: The Board of Trustees who have no understanding of higher education selects the most unqualified campus president in modern American university history,” Columbus Free Press. Aug. 26, 2023; “State Senator Jerry Cirino versus the State of Ohio, Public Higher Education, Free Speech and Academic Freedom, and Students’ Right to Learn,” Busting Myths, )Columbus Free Press, Sept. 5, 2023)

The BOT returns to the executive search firm to a new provost in the university with no learning curve.

So go the Bucks.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and Academy Professor, Ohio State University . Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about social history and higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. He is now writing Reconstructing the “Uni-versity” from the Ashes of the “Mega- and Multi-versity.”